We have a unique issue in Fayetteville that our friends in New York, Los Angeles, or even Dallas don’t have. We are not considered a target audience by film studios; therefore we do not get quality movies as soon as they come out. We often have to wait a few weeks or even months to get the buzzed about movies that come out of the major cities. This can create a lot of anticipation. This can also create a sense disappointment when a film doesn’t quite live up to all of the hype. Alexander Payne’s new film, “The Descendants” falls into both categories. It is both superb as well as somewhat disappointing. When you leave the film, you are satisfied with the outstanding acting and writing, yet you are also left feeling a bit underwhelmed, due to the insane amount of hype.
Payne is the same Oscar-winning director and scribe who brought us 1999’s “Election,” 2002’s “About Schmidt,” and 2004’s “Sideways.” The latter of these films was universally praised and was arguably one of the decade’s finest films. However, one general complaint about “Sideways” was its elitism. Many hopeful wine aficionados tried to live through the film thinking they were well-versed wine experts themselves. One can only imagine how much that film hurt the merlot industry because of yuppie movie goers thinking they had learned the key to knowing wine. What “Sideways” did miraculously was showcase a mature and enduring love story between middle-aged adults and highlight the power and integrity of a well-written female center (thank you Virginia Madsen). The same could be said for “About Schmidt” and “Election” which gave us career highlight performances from Kathy Bates and Reese Witherspoon.
Females aren’t at the center of “The Descendants.” In fact, the lead female has a horrible accident that lasts thirty seconds at the start of the film. The movie stars George Clooney (in perhaps his finest performance to date) as an out-of-touch father/husband who has learned that his distant wife has had a near fatal boating accident. Within the first few moments, he learns that his wife will probably not come out of her coma. That is where the film begins. The character spends the rest of the film informing friends and family members so they can wish their goodbyes to his wife. However, Payne flips the premise on its head by having Clooney come to the realization that his wife had fallen out of love with him and into the arms of someone else. All of this paints a heartbreaking, yet darkly comedic tone to the story.
Women do eventually come into play with the emergence of his two daughters. Shailene Woodley is exceptional as his oldest child who is having her own difficulties dealing with her mother’s impending doom. She relays on her dim-witted boyfriend for support, which provides great comic relief to a film that is less comical that “Sideways.” In fact, the film is much less of a comedy than any of Payne’s past works. What it is, though, is a deeply touching film that shows a great deal of humanity and empathy. If a conventional filmmaker were to have made this film, perhaps we would have seen where each twist and turn was going. Instead, we have a much richer story about a man who has to come to terms with his reality and make choices that few could ever imagine, in the wake of betrayal.
The visuals (much like “Sideways”) are stunning, as Payne has chosen to showcase Hawaii away from the tourist destinations. In his first few sentences, Payne has written the line, “Fuck paradise” and he lives up to that model. However, with the ocean and palm trees in every scene, it’s hard to not see the beauty. The gorgeous music certainly helps.
Where the film falters is with its general connection. Although very touching, at times, it feels as if you’re simply watching odd situations happen without truly being immersed. The writing, the acting, the scenery, and everything else is top notch. The film does, however, leave you feeling a bit cold and quiet. It would be hard to find anyone who didn’t enjoy “The Descendants” or appreciate it. It would be even harder to find anyone who said they LOVED it, though, which is what we all want from films we have to wait so damn long to see. Overall, it’s a solid (and well deserved) B+, when you want it to be an A.
Final Grade: B+
Wayne Bell is a regular contributor for the Fayetteville Flyer. He moved to Fayetteville in 2003 for his Master’s Degree and you can almost always catch him at Little Bread Co. or Hammontree’s. For more of Wayne’s contributions, visit his author page.